The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) hosted its biannual Small Reactor Forum on February 25, 2014. The agenda for the one day event included six well-organized sessions with presentations from three small reactor vendors, the industry trade group, the regulatory agency, and several outside observers with a significant interest in the technology from a variety of perspectives. The slide show presentations are available from the conference archive page.
Of course, the slides only provide a hint of the content that was presented and discussed.
Perhaps reflecting the fact that there are far more conferences focused on discussing smaller reactors than there are small reactor construction projects, the event attracted a smaller than expected crowd. In a challenging economic environment, there are often fewer resources available to invest in projects where the payoff seems to be in the distant future than there are for projects with more immediate payoffs. Competition for attendees can be fierce when there is only a limited pot of money, most of the recipients have been already identified, and the near-term potential for increased resources seems dim.
Despite the disappointing attendance numbers, the event provided a worthwhile progress report on a number of tasks that must be accomplished in order to make smaller nuclear reactors a viable energy option.
Marv Fertel, the President and CEO of NEI, started off the conference with cautious optimism. He noted several significant challenges that are making it difficult to believe that now is great time to start new nuclear projects. He mentioned how the events at Fukushima have caused many to rethink the use of nuclear energy, how competition from low natural gas prices in the United States has helped to create a low priced electricity market where capital intensive projects have a difficult time, how a slow recovery from the economic recession that started in 2008 has created a period of slow electricity demand growth that has reduced the need for any new supplies and how renewable energy portfolio mandates have pushed additional generating capacity into a market that is already fully supplied, making existing baseload power plants uneconomical to operate.
He reminded people, however, that a seasonably cold winter has exposed the vulnerability of the natural gas supply infrastructure; during periods of intense cold, the system constraints have resulted in substantial price spikes. He pointed out the fact that electric power grids in the US and around the world have generally been better off when built on a diverse base of supply options and described NEI’s current initiatives to inform policy makers about the way that supply diversity can provide resiliency when certain fuel options are constrained by environmental or infrastructure considerations.
Even with those efforts underway, he acknowledged that economic considerations may result in a series of separate decisions to shut down as many as thirty of the existing nuclear reactors in the United States between now and 2035; most of those plants will be in the smaller, single unit category, but they are not the only ones that are economically challenged in the current environment.
He pointed out how the smaller reactor designs under development will provide a new option for utilities in order for them to be able to provide electricity for a growing population in an environmentally responsible manner. Because of the challenges facing existing plants, Fertel believes that small modular reactors are even more important today than they were four or five years ago because they may be available for rapid deployment in market-appropriate increments.
Fertel did not say this, but the logic seemed pretty clear. If (when?) gas prices rise more rapidly than expected or if (when?) gas demonstrates continued volatility because of demand variations, policy makers should realize that permanent decisions to shut down reliable baseload power plants were mistakes. If that happens, it would be useful to have an option to build smaller nuclear plants on a more responsive schedule than is possible for very large units.
NRC Commissioner Apostolakis followed Fertel’s introduction with a carefully non-committal brief about the efforts that the NRC has made to prepare for expected design certification applications that will use the existing regulations with few modifications. He described the effort that has gone into early discussions between reactor vendors and the Commission staff and the effort to slightly modify the direction given to license application reviewers by creating design specific review standards that take into account the unique features that each reactor vendor has proposed in order to meet the established general design criteria.
Not surprisingly for people who know his background, Commissioner Apostolakis spoke favorably about the possibility of the commission receiving and accepting certain new approaches that might rely more on a risk-informed analysis than on strict, one-size-fits-all application of numbers that were derived on an assumption that all reactors are large, producing approximately 1 GWe.
One specific number he mentioned that might be amenable to a risk-informed approach was the diameter of the emergency planning zone. He also stated that the NRC is ready to listen to design-based vendor proposals for control room staffing rules, response teams, and security staffing. He described, in general terms, internal discussions that are ongoing regarding the potential need for NRC inspectors at module fabrication facilities and a need to determine how manufacturing might affect the process of closing items left open in the design certification to be closed based on inspections, testing, analysis and acceptance criteria (ITAAC).
Dr. Pete Lyons, the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Energy, described how the Administration recognizes the importance of energy diversity and the role of nuclear energy as a very low emission technology in the “all of the above” list of options. He emphasized the substantial amount of interest in SMRs that he has heard while on his international trips. He alluded to the fact that some of the countries most interested in building nuclear plants, including smaller nuclear plants, are countries with large domestic fossil fuel resources. He pointed out that they are realizing that they would rather use something else to produce domestic electricity so that they have more product to sell into the lucrative international market.
That might be something for the US to consider, especially as it invests in more capacity to export products like coal and natural gas and considers loosening restrictions on exporting crude oil.
Several characteristics of smaller reactors make them attractive around the world, including the fact that they are a better fit for smaller grids and the fact that they have a good potential for air cooling in places where water resources are limited. The DOE recognizes that the economics of smaller reactors will not work unless vendors are able to assemble a large enough order book to encourage investment in the factories that will enable the economy of mass production to overcome the disadvantage of smaller unit sizes. Building just one or two units would be a failure of the vision. As a rough measure of the potential scale of the program, Dr. Lyons threw out a figure of 50 GWe from smaller reactors in the US in the next several decades, but he added a number of caveats that admitted that the number was still just a guess at this point.
Dr. Lyons described the DOE’s program to support the design and technical licensing evaluation of two specific design options and described how it is modeled after the Nuclear Power 2010 program. Dr. Lyons was quite proud of the impact of that program, calling it a great success. The “bumper sticker” on the slide describing the SMR program, which was legislatively limited to two recipients, stated “The U.S. Government wants to support the safest, most robust SMR designs that minimize the probability of any radioactivity release.” Here is how Dr. Lyons described the selection process.
At the moment, we have the two awards that have been announced, B&W mPower and NuScale. Certainly we had outstanding applications. We had a number of applications from US companies. It was a tough competition, a very tough competition. We used quite a range of different tools in finally coming up with identifying the successful candidates in those solicitations. You might find it interesting, even though we were required to have only an internal government panel, which we certainly had, we also used a number of private, unbiased individuals to also review the application. So we had a variety of different reviews of the applications in order to make this very, very difficult decision but B&W mPower and NuScale came through on top of those two procurements.
Aside: That part of Dr. Lyon’s presentation provides some context for a comment that Pierre Oneid, Senior Vice President & Chief Nuclear Officer Holtec International, made later in the day. Holtec was not one of the two vendors chosen, but Oneid stated that the company does not really want DOE’s money as much as they want their stamp of approval. There is a strong undercurrent of feeling that the DOE small reactor program was specifically — and inappropriately — designed to anoint the government as the selection body for the winners and losers in the race to build smaller nuclear reactors. End Aside.
In response to a question from the audience, Dr. Lyons indicated that there is no current plan to ask for any additional money or to issue any additional funding opportunity application processes.
Despite the discomfort that many Americans have with the idea of the government selecting winners and losers, I am starting to come to the conclusion that nuclear energy might be an exception. Standardization provides a number of economic benefits, but leaving the decision to “the market” eliminates many of those benefits for a technology with the kind of long lead times associated with nuclear technology.
There was a lot more to the conference, but this post is already long enough. I will cover the rest in a separate post.